Reaping rewards of improved defensive efficiency

May, 1, 2009
It was last winter that Jim Leyland said the first thing the Tigers had to address was their defense. General manager Dave Dombrowski traded for Gerald Laird and Josh Anderson and signed Adam Everett, Brandon Inge was returned to his rightful place at third base, and Detroit went into May in first place with a defense that in 2009 was ninth in defensive efficiency after being 24th last season.

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik went out and acquired Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez for Safeco's spacious outfield. The M's have gone from 26th to eighth in defensive efficiency. Walt Jocketty and Dusty Baker addressed the Reds' defense, hence the remarkable climb from 29th to fourth -- and the building of their pitching in a hitters' park.

Dodgers GM Ned Colletti worked hard to re-sign Rafael Furcal and stole Orlando Hudson; the Dodgers have the second-best defensive efficiency in the majors after being in the middle of the pack in 2008.

And the team that leads the majors in DE? The Pittsburgh Pirates, who were 28th last year and in 2009 are competitive despite losing their catcher, shortstop and center fielder.

We learned a lot watching the Rays go from a bad to an extraordinary defensive team from 2007 to 2008, which took them into the World Series. Sometimes the improvement comes with acquisitions, some, like Willy Taveras, who get overlooked. Other times, it is the product of an organizational commitment, as represented by the Pirates.

Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington and manager John Russell worked hard this past offseason to lay out a defensive plan. Gary Varsho was designated to work with the outfielders. Perry Hill, one of the great instructors of this era, took over the infielders. (Notice how Freddy Sanchez doesn't drift, or how much better Andy LaRoche has played at third?) They brought in Joe Kerrigan, who not only breaks down hitters but also is a master at coordinating the pitching with the defense, which on a staff of contact pitchers is very important.

"It's something we felt was important and had to be addressed," Huntington says. "We marvel at the way Nyjer Morgan covers ground. Nate McLouth is better than the matrixes show. The infield has been much better, and the pitchers have done a great job executing Joe's plan. Are we a great team? No one is claiming that, but the emphasis John and his staff have put on the defensive side of the game has shown progress. They deserve a lot of credit."

Mike Scioscia laments that the Angels "have played poor defense." Maybe it's because of all the pitchers they have had to run out there, but the Angels are 29th in defensive efficiency after being 14th last season. The Red Sox, who have lost their regular shortstop, have dropped from fifth to 24th, the Braves from 12th to 25th.

In an era when baseball's testing policies have turned back the clock on the slow-pitch softball game of the steroids era, defense, speed and base running are once again the focus of many teams' attention. The first month of the 2009 season is further proof.

When Milton Bradley was ejected and subsequently suspended, some players felt that Bradley was baited. I reiterated that belief on a radio interview. Major League Baseball investigated, and said there was absolutely no evidence to show any baiting, and that, as is usually the case, the umpires were right and the rest of us were wrong. MLB officials Bob Watson and Mike Port are clearly working hard to eliminate the widely held perception that umpires have become increasingly confrontational, and they have shown that there is very little evidence of offensive confrontations. So the umpires have aced their examinations.

Ervin Santana and John Lackey are slated to throw 60 pitches for Salt Lake City on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. They'll each then throw an 80-pitch outing, and there is the possibility that they'll be called up and allowed to go 90 pitches with the Angels. Kelvim Escobar may try to pitch in a game in early June, although his ability to bounce back is an issue the club is waiting to monitor. Dustin Moseley and reliever Kevin Jepsen may be back soon; at least they are getting close to normal. The Angels considered free agents like Pedro Martinez and Paul Byrd, but felt they are too far away from being able to start games, so they passed. They also looked around at some low-service-time starters like Boston's Michael Bowden but are still unwilling to trade any of their better young players.

It's hard to believe that Casey Kotchman went into the weekend with no homers and four RBIs.

Alex Rodriguez's Friday extended spring schedule took him to Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla. The Pirates were asked to provide A-Rod with a separate dressing room, separate trainer's room, a private field on which he could work out and separate workout time. "That," said a Pirates official, "was absolutely a first for extended spring training."

The Pirates will wait a little longer before bringing up center fielder Andrew McCutcheon, who is hitting .282 with an .838 OPS in Triple-A; that outfield defense with Morgan and McLouth will be something to behold. Pedro Alvarez has struggled (.219, .738) in the Carolina League, but GM Neal Huntington points to his 10-month layoff and isn't concerned.

Mat Gamel is hitting over .370 and has five homers off left-handed pitchers with Milwaukee's Triple-A Louisville club. Bill Hall is hitting over .300, so Gamel may have to wait, although Doug Melvin is thinking of bringing Gamel up when the Brewers begin playing American League teams later this month and allowing him to DH.

One NL scout watching the Mets worries about the lack of swings and misses against J.J. Putz; in 2006, '07 and '08, Putz got swings and misses on 30.8, 27.4 and 26.0 percent of his opponents' swings, but it is down to 12.9 percent this season. But the same scout raves about Ryan Madson, saying, "He's throwing 96 to 98 [with 15 K, 4 BB in 10 innings] and has closer stuff." With Brad Lidge having knee problems, that is a good thing.

One general manager suggests we are in a golden age of second basemen. The reigning American League MVP is Dustin Pedroia.

Only 10 times in baseball history has a second baseman compiled an OPS of greater than .992, and seven of those 10 seasons were posted by Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby. Going into the weekend, Chase Utley had an OPS of 1.105, Ian Kinsler 1.057, Robinson Cano 1.002 and Aaron Hill .997. What once was considered a defensive position is now defensive and offensive.

The Red Sox this week asked John Smoltz to slow down his rehab. Smoltz, who will join the club this weekend and be examined by strength and conditioning coach Mike Reinhold, insists it is nothing major. "I will be pitching in June," Smoltz texted.


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